In Ridley Scott’s 2015 blockbuster movie “The Martian”, the main character Mark Watney, an astronaut who puts McGuyver to shame, faces his imminent demise stranded on Mars and comes to one inescapable conclusion:


The Martian, Ridley Scott, 2015

Lately there have been a lot of fire-service-Mark-Watney-isms happening.  Science, and more specifically, the scientific method, is challenging commonly held traditions and beliefs about fire and fighting it.

FFerfireThere is a lot of expensively acquired wisdom within the fire service around fighting residential structure fires.  Firefighters spend hours in the classroom and on the training fireground learning about the application of water to fire. Textbooks have multiple chapters dedicated to the subject.  Apparatus, pumps, hoses and nozzles get water on a fire with a knowledgeable crew of firefighters making critical decisions in mere moments about how much water to apply, the type of firestream to apply, and where and when to apply it. Through observational experience, firefighters see fire and structures react in a myriad of conditions and circumstances, and draw concrete usable experience based on those outcomes. We rely on those experiences to become good firefighters, and we pass those experiences onto those around us in formal lessons, drills and informal fire house war stories.

A new and exciting trend is the formal study of fire dynamics. In the past we’ve lit fires in acquired structures and done various drills and evolutions to see how fire behaves and how we as firefighters can affect it. Today this has evolved into a laboratory science, employing teams of people from many fields using purpose built structures in controlled conditions with arrays of sensors that measure many different datapoints.

If this doesn’t excite you as a training officer, I don’t know what will.

Many of us are familiar with the Governors Island NIST studies, who’s results have been distilled into a great online e-learning program.  Refining that new information came the SLICE-RS program. What I find exciting is how quickly the findings of this particular work was published in a learning format and distributed via the internet. Not only is the work being done, but the results are being turned into whole training programs and shared with everyone. If this doesn’t excite you as a training officer, I don’t know what will.

In this latest study, Underwriters Laboratories has constructed two 1600 sq. foot single story test houses in a large research building and had a strong team of researchers and firefighters repeatedly burn these units under a variety of circumstances using different strategies, tactics and water applications and the effects on victim survivability.  This short video summaries the effort:

exp14The information gathered from these experiments are essential to advancing our knowledge and understanding of the residential fire environment. In many cases these studies are proving what many experienced firefighters have come to learn over the years, and displacing assumptions or extrapolations that might be incorrect – for example “pushing fire”. We’re also learning an incredible amount about what is harder to see, and predict it – interior flowpaths of heat, smoke and flame.  This is solid work that we should eagerly review.

We need to have strong beliefs, loosely held, backed by proven data.

The tougher part is going back to our training programs and adjusting our lessons and drills to incorporate this new information.  The difficulty is that this research doesn’t follow the 5 year NFPA standards cycle change.  Much of it may be incorporated in the next textbook release, but that may be years away as it has to go through committee, writing, approval and publishing. We are also a service of strongly held beliefs, usually strongly defended. We need to be prepared to hold strong beliefs but willing for them to be displaced with new, scientifically backed, research based facts. The velocity of research today means no more sacred cows. We need to have strong beliefs, loosely held, backed by proven data.

E-Training programs can provide a means to get new inter-cycle standards information out into the training division without waiting for traditional print media to catch up.  In many cases, as we have seen with the NIST study and SLICE-RS, published results include course materials such as online modules and video that can be incorporated into your e-training system. It just becomes a matter of adjusting your lesson and drill plans and incorporating this new information. And it does not have to be an undertaking the size of a new curriculum.  For example, if you have an e-Training program for NFPA 1001 Firefighter I and II, and a Maintenance Refresher program, you can simply insert the new material in the appropriate courses and socialize the new additions with instructors and crews – no fan-fare, instant publishing and no waiting for the new edition of a textbook or powerpoint slide deck.


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